History was my favourite subject and there was a course called ‘Modern European and American History’ which seemed to have everything I wanted. The different mix of modules was very interesting and the course covered a very wide spectrum of subject areas.
History has always been my passion, from when I was a small child. I taught myself to read age three and started reading about it all very early on.
I started off working for Winchester City Council and then about 10 months later I moved to work for the National Civil Service after joining their trainee scheme. I stayed working for the civil service until I moved into professional quizzing.
I’d always been interested in quizzes and as a child I loved watching them on television. However, it wasn’t until I was in the civil service that I starting doing quizzes regularly at a good level. After some thought I applied for Mastermind. I appeared on the series in 1987, and I didn’t really look back after that. For a while I wrote the questions for BBC Radio 4’s Brain of Britain, and now I’m a professional quizzer on Eggheads. I’m very lucky. In the UK there are only a handful of people able to make a living out of quizzing – essentially those who appear on Eggheads or The Chase.
I have a good memory but it’s not photographic. I do need to top up and refresh. At times, I see something in a visual way, like a list of winners of some sporting event. I am good on dates so they tend to be hooks on which I hang information. I don’t spend as much time as I should researching. I do tend to rest on my laurels and rely on my memory. I keep an eye on the BBC website and go for news magazines like The Economist and Time. I then just keep an eye out for things that catch my attention. If I’m going up the escalator in the Tube for example, I’ll look at the adverts for who’s starring in which theatre productions.
People have asked me whether it is a matter of simply learning by rote. Does it involve intelligence or is it just fact-learning? I think it is more complicated than that. I’ve never met anyone really involved in quizzing who doesn’t have intellectual curiosity, and I think that is a significant component of intelligence.
In some ways you never switch off. Everything you do feeds into the knowledge base. I’m a big film fan, and like going to the theatre and concerts. I also like to travel, but I do these things because I want to. If I come across something that might be useful I’ll store that away.
It has to be winning the World Quizzing Championships in 2004, which was a real highlight for me. I’m also very proud of winning Mastermind in 1995 and Brain of Britain in 1996.
I didn’t have the opportunity to appear on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, having won Mastermind and other competitions. The closest I got was when they took the competition to theatres around the country in the summer of 2005. Members of the audience played for points rather than pounds, with points equating to prizes. The £1m equivalent was a Jaguar car – which I won.
I hesitate to use the word celebrity, it is more familiarity. The regularity of Eggheads, especially now we are on at 6pm, means that I am recognised a lot. It doesn’t sit naturally, and at first it surprised me, but I have got used to it and am perfectly happy if people want to come up and talk to me.